A Cure For Sleeplessness by Amanda Crum

There was a time when he could sleep through the night and never open his eyes until noon, but those days were as far past him as the ones with wet dreams. Now he was lucky to get in four hours before his back woke him, or his goddamned prostate.

Roland Phillips stood on his front porch and breathed deep. He always started the day the same way; coffee on the porch and quiet time. After he retired from the fire department, calm mornings were a gift he couldn’t ignore, and in the fall there was always a deep restlessness in his bones that made him unable to sit still. Perhaps it was the uneasy similarity between October and this point in his life, when everything seemed like a preparation for endings.

The problem was, he had so much left to do. Sleep was often sacrificed in the name of What-If, a game he played with himself when his mind wandered like an old man in the woods. If he’d started his operation in his youth, he’d be in the clear now, able to escape the hills and the small people he was forced to keep in his employ. How he hated them, the lowlifes with their body odor and missing teeth and the one-hitters hidden in watch pockets. In his old life he had been a respected member of the community, had won awards for his service. Now he had to depend on convicts and weirdos to help him secure his retirement fund.

Not that he was afraid to get his hands dirty. Working in the soil, raising something from nothing, had become second nature to him. Saving lives had been a rewarding job, but here was the real reward: the smell of earthworms and growing things.

No one had told him the job would demand violence, though, and sometimes he resented it. The blood smell, like the slaughterhouse just down the road from his childhood home; the squirreling around after dark to hide things. The extra work tugged at his patience.

Sometimes, though, when he’d had enough time for an indiscretion to marinate, the work was almost soothing. He felt it first in the arms, that sore relief which only came from getting something one had worked hard for and truly deserved. It was the only thing that secured a full night of sleep with no restless tossings.

Roland slung the cooling dregs of his coffee out into the yard and headed back into the house. Daylight was scarce these days, and he had a thief to deal with.

When he opened the front door, a young man with half an eyeball laying on one cheek began to scream.

“Ain’t nobody gonna hear you way out here,” Roland said, bemused. “I bet your throat is sore from all that wailin’. I’ll tell you what: give me a number and I’ll get you a tall, cold beer.”

The man’s cries wound down slowly, like a tornado siren dying. He panted, chest straining against the ropes that held him to a kitchen chair. “What? What number?”

“C’mon,” Roland said. “Tell me about your dreams and machinations. How you were planning to rob me, little by little, for your own interests.”

“I don’t know what you me–”

Roland’s arm whipped out quick as a snake, flashing silver at the hand. The man’s screams began again, more intense than before, as his other eyeball slid from its socket. In the dim room, it was little more than a spectral suggestion on his cheek, like something almost pretty. A flower, maybe.

“How many plants did you take?” Roland asked once the man’s screams had reduced to gurgles. “Did you smoke up with your friends and have a good laugh at the frail old man you stole from?”

The man laid his head back, tilted it up toward Roland’s voice. Beneath the blood, his ruined face was resigned.

“Yeah,” he said hoarsely. “I took five plants and me and my friends, we smoked ‘em all. Every last one.”

Roland smiled a great and terrible smile. He raised his arm and thought, with relief, how easy sleep would come later.

Baby Magic by Serena Jayne

Della hobbled down Bourbon Street, dodging drunken tourists. The fifty-dollar bill she’d shoved inside her bra made her tits itch. Her stomach lurched at the stale beer, body odor, and urine stink. Pedestrian chatter blended with the mix of music, making the air seem to pulse.

Remy’s words as he’d handed her the cash, “we’ll be back after last call, cher,” burned in her brain. His voice, all smoke and silk,never failed to make her sex drive sizzle like a fryer full of beignets, but pain overrode her fantasies of getting down and dirty with her sister Rose’s husband. Each step brought a stabbing pain to her insides.

She jiggled the warm bundle in her arms and peered at her bare legs, bracing herself for the all-too-familiar trail of blood and chunky bits. Luckily, her knobby knees and sunburned legs remained free of womanly gore. When her latest pee stick turned pink, she’d drawn an x on Marie Laveau’s tomb with blessed chalk every day for a month, but like the dozen or so other babies she’d conceived, instead of settling in, the latest embryo had oozed out of her toxic womb.

Rose hadn’t needed magic to conceive or for her daughter to be born pink and perfect, but she wasn’t above using sorcery to sell real estate. She planted a Saint Joseph statue upside down in the lawn of each house she brokered. Even though she never bothered to unearth them afterward as the ritual required, no agent sold a house faster than Rose.

Della could relate to all those plastic saints trapped in the dark, ever alone and slowly suffocating. She was sick of waiting to be rescued while the Roses of the world reveled in their good fortune. She, like the hundreds of Saint Josephs buried in yards across Louisiana, deserved some karmic relief.

Eager for some statue voodoo of her own, Della had planted the bitty baby Jesus she’d discovered inside a hunk of multicolored king cake deep within herself. She prayed gravity wouldn’t send the tiny toy tumbling into her panties. Because of the way its legs locked at a ninety-degree angle from its torso, the insertion left Della aching as though the plastic figure had clawed its way inside.

On St. Ann Street, a woman in a stained sundress used a street sign as a stripper pole. She grinned at passersby with meth-rotted teeth while she wiggled her ass and pranced. Men hooted and leered, waving crumpled dollar bills. She yelled curses at a teenager in a Saints jersey who took a selfie with her and scurried away without offering a tip.

Della dug the fifty from her bra and handed the sweaty bill to the woman.

“Whatcha got there?” The wannabe stripper squinted at the bundle in Della’s arms.

Della backed away and headed toward Jackson Square. She’d rather dance for money than keep the cash Remy paid her before he and Rose hit the clubs. Babysitting their infant always left her feeling as though every damned Mardi Gras float had rolled right over her heart.

Rose was the prettier one, the smarter sister, the sibling most likely to succeed. She’d scored a thriving business and a sexy Cajan husband. Yet, Della only coveted one of Rose’s many blessings. A child overflowing with unconditional love would keep Della clean and give her life focus. Otherwise, she might as well join the woman in her dollar dance, hoping one of the men would offer her the temporary escape sex and drugs brought.

Della held her bundled niece to her nose, breathing in the babe’s talcum powder and dirty diaper scent. After rubbing another finger of Kalua onto the baby’s gums to keep her quiet, she slipped the infant into the shadows. She made her way back to the crazy chaos of Bourbon Street, leaving her sister’s child to the chilled night air and to the ghosts who haunted Jackson Square.

Rose, who had always had everything, would know loss. If the king cake baby voodoo failed, at least Della would no longer be alone in her pain. Being bound by blood and sorrow was in itself the most primal magic.

Por Fin by Lago Milagros

August in Woodside

“That ain’t freedom. You pussywhipped by the idea of heaven.” Gordo said, brown-eyed with crimson lines like blood lightning.

“You wildin’ son” replied Teka, as he took the last swig of Aguardiente, before shading in the letters on the brick canvas, behind the bodega on 64th St.

“Where God at tho?” Continued Gordo. “You pray and pray and believe in these stories. For what? Salvation?  That’s some stupid shit.”

Gordo reached in his Jansport bookbag and took out another bottle of Aguardiente. The anise flavored liquor made its way into three small porcelain cups.

“One for you, one for me, and one for the streets, cuz they be cold.”

As the firewater fished courage from the realms of Teka’s inner space, it brought flashbacks of the coffee fields, where he plucked berries by the kilos as a child. The land had been passed down for generations dating back to the revolution. It was supposed to be his birthright until when the guerrilla came like winter rain and took his parents into the jungles, never to be seen again. Teka saw his parents disappear into the dense vegetation from the tool shed near the chicken coop.

“Teka, you ain’t gonna bitch out, right?”

To Gordo’s surprise, Teka was already walking into the bakery, Colombian flag covering his face. Magdalena, the hostess was the only roadblock between them and the back room.

“Pa’ fuera mujer!”

Gordo slapped her ass on the way out.

“Teka, remember, we ain’t trying to kill anybody. This my girl’s uncle spot. Let’s take the cash and bounce.”

Teka’s hand gripped the pistol like he gripped the plantains before slicing them. He was focused on the transformation.

The backroom was dimly lit and carried a cloud of cigar smoke that looked ready for rain. There were photos of Colombian mountains, coffee, lakes, and fincas, like the one Teka had grown up in. In the center of the room was a round table. On it was stacks of money. Counting it alone was an elderly man, Don Chucho, the owner of the beloved neighborhood bakery.

“Papi, ¿Qué es esto? You no fucking Colombian. I’m Sargento Sánchez de la Federación..”

“Del Monte Sagrado… I know, and that’s exactly why I’m here.”

Sargento Sánchez stopped counting and reached for his pistol with the confidence of decades past, when he sequestered lands from peasants. Before his thunder could begin, Teka’s bullets were already on their way out of his body”

Gordo ran out the back room towards the front door only to be met with a bullet to his third eye. His yesterday’s exploded on the wall as his body surrendered to gravity.

Magdalena stood with a pistol in hand, smirking and winked at Teka.

“Is it done?”

“Por fin, Tia.”

Lemmings by Jay Butkowski

The <CLACK> <CLACK> of keyboard strokes was putting Dimitry into a trance.

There wasn’t much else to focus on inside the data center.  Except for the sounds of typing and the occasional whirring of a CPU fan trying to cool down an overburdened processor, there wasn’t much by way of audio-sensory stimulus.  They weren’t even allowed music when the computer jockeys were “in the zone.”

There wasn’t much to look at—the room was small, windowless, with yellowed walls, ratty second-hand furniture, and a stained popcorn ceiling.  Dimitry’s uncle Garri hadn’t exactly hired Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition models to staff the terminals, either.  But what these trolls lacked in looks and basic hygiene, they more than made up for in sheer screen time stamina.

The smells—now those were interesting, though not altogether pleasant.  But at least it broke the monotony when one of these ugly little gremlins silently broke wind.

Dimitry was just there to bark the occasional order and make sure the coffee breaks weren’t too frequent or long.  Uncle Garri ran a tight ship; Dimitry less so, but he had to put on a show to make his Uncle happy.  Uncle Garri’s happiness notwithstanding, the job was boring for a big shot like Dimitry.  He explained to his uncle that he should be overseeing operations at the docks, or running numbers at the off-track betting parlor.  Hell, even walking the Old Neighborhood streets and shaking down shop owners for protection money would have been a step up from this.  Babysitting these Geek Squad nerds was beneath him.

“My boy, nothing is beneath you when it comes to money,” Uncle Garri said.

So Dimitry sat, swiveled restlessly back and forth in his office chair, and let his mind wander as he counted the craters in the popcorn ceiling.  He imagined the <CLACKETY> <CLACK> was instead the <CHI-CHING> of a giant, old-timey cash register that sprung open whenever he walked past, allowing him to dig his grubby little fingers into wads of other people’s cash.

At least that’s what he hoped for.  In all honesty, Dimitry had no clue how what they were doing was going to translate to more cash in his pocket.

Uncle Garri didn’t allow much by way of creature comforts inside the data center, but he made a couple allowances.  They could smoke, and they all smoked; and they could drink coffee, and they all reported to their shifts with a steaming hot thermos, ready for the work ahead.  Between the steam lifting up from the dark brew in their thermoses, and the cloud of stale smoke hanging in the air—and the blue light of the computer screens bouncing between the two—the computer operators took on the appearance of ghosts in a Japanese horror import, forever damned to stare blankly at screens while their fingers flew effortlessly and meaninglessly over their keyboards.

Dimitry was in that space where his own snores would occasionally jostle him momentarily back to consciousness when paydirt was finally hit.

“Holy shit… Holy fucking shit…”

It was Danny, one of the new guys on the crew.  Fresh out of college, in his early twenties but looked to be middle-aged.  He was incredulously staring at the screen.

“Whu?” asked Dimitry, wiping spittle from his chin.

“Holy fuck… Dude, we got a… wait… I think we got a Congressman.”

“Legit?”

“It’s checking out.  And he’s telling his followers…”

A cheer went up through their small crew.  Vodka got poured.  One of the team, a balding guy named Randall, made a pass at Meghan, who looked repulsed.

Dimitry didn’t think it was going to work.  Hours, days, weeks, months consumed in contracted data centers around the country, with endless campaigns of social media misinformation.  Unfounded accusations and conspiracy theories slipped like a hot knife into right-wing political chatrooms, and the seemingly innocuous suggestion—“have you heard about the new free speech platform, Talk-a-Bout?” 

It’s free, but it takes a credit card number and SSN to verify your identity.

An identity they could steal and sell at data centers just like Dimitry’s.

And now the conservative political elite were leading their sheep to the slaughter.

They were all about to become extraordinarily rich.

The Quiet/Loud Dynamic by Scott Cumming

It was the song we’d waited all night for. The acoustic number that had rocketed the band to the mainstream and more specifically the lead singer from pin up to messiah. He sang of a pain I knew well. The daggered, betrayed broken heart. I stood awed by the singer’s presence, ready to bask in my favourite song. He strummed the opening chords and the crowd settled in for something special.

“This song is pure shite! Not as good as their early stuff!” Bellowed the guy to my right.

He wasn’t talking to me, but I caught every word. He was blethering with his mate and a half dozen folk turned in his direction with crinkled brows denoting ‘shut the fuck up, ye twat’.

He took no notice.

“Wish they would play ‘Retractor’! Way better than this pish!” He continued.

I was trying to concentrate on the song. My annoyance getting the better of me. I gave another glance.

“We’ll be lucky to see them in a venue this size again!” His mate nodded, aware of the rancour his friend was gathering.

A tough looking bald guy turned fully and stared at loudmouth in appeal. He quietly said something continuing his stare, which bore a good deal of said rancour. I couldn’t hear what he was said, but the reply was audible for all.

“How about you mind your own, prick!

“I’m just trying to enjoy myself like everyone else!”

The bald guy wasn’t up for a full confrontation and turned back to the stage shaking his head in frustration. I’d given up listening to the music and was fully invested in what was happening a couple of feet away. I found my place in the song, but my thoughts were consumed by hatred. Nobody paid £35 to hear what he had to say and I’d hazard a guess that nobody ever would.

“Fuck sake! Some folk! Never let you enjoy anything!”

We were at the third run of the chorus and I knew the moment was gone. It felt like I missed out on some catharsis. Maybe it wouldn’t have helped much, but my thoughts were now consumed by anger at the loudmouth. The singer had left the stage, but he’d be back momentarily as is the custom.

“I’m off for a whiskey! Do you want anything?!”

Respite when it was least needed. He ambled off to the deserted bar with everyone geared in anticipation for the encore. Clapping for the band to return for two or three more songs.

“Here ye go!” He’d returned no quieter than before and got a few more frustrated glances.

The band returned to the stage and the singer strode to the mic to introduce the next song. “This is a heavier one from the old days. This one’s called ‘Retractor’.”

“YYYYYEEEEEEAAAAAHHHHH!!!” You don’t need me to tell you who went wild with the news.

It was about then that a new idea for catharsis took hold. I became thankful that the band hadn’t blown up before now. They were unlikely to play many more venues that served you the hippest craft beer in a glass bottle. I knelt down quickly and broke mine against the hard floor. I don’t think I was noticed in the frenzy that blossomed with the opening chords.

Loudmouth was grabbing his mate getting ready for the riff to explode.

“HERE WE! HERE WE! HERE WE FUCKING GO!”

I latched onto his shoulder. He turned and gave a wee smile, ready to let loose to his favourite track. The riff kicked in producing a cacophony of noise and the crowd rose to meet it. It was a sweaty, boozy pogoing mass with no inhibitions. My inhibitions were lost too as I turned the bottleneck in my hand and thrust it forward into the meaty abdomen of the loudmouth. I did it a second time, but not a third. I didn’t want to attract attention to what I was doing.

I pushed away from loudmouth and hustled my way closer to the front. I heard him topple to the floor. “Looks like someone’s had too much,” came the shout to my left.

Dial M for… by Bruce Harris

Sy Foreman sat on a round, unpadded cushion at the Borough Diner. “I can’t believe it,” he said into his phone. “First time I’ve ever done that. I must have left it in the house.” After a brief pause, he said, “My knife, what else?”

One seat away at the counter, Detective Doulas Fisher cut into an egg yolk and watched it ooze yellow. He listened. His ears perked up when the man speaking into his phone mentioned the house address, 745 Webster Place. Pressure was being put on the police department to catch a serial knife-wielding home intruder. The situation had become particularly acute, since the last two occurrences had taken place when the parents were out and baby sitters were present. The police had few leads, but one of the victim’s neighbors thought she saw a stranger walk past her on the day of the break-in. The description matched the man seated near the detective. He needed to move cautiously.

Fisher’s record of screw-ups was legendary throughout the 90th precinct. A month ago, he failed to read a suspect his rights, and the man walked free. Before that, he tripped on his own untied shoelace, erasing vital fingerprints at a crime scene. 

After the man ended his phone call, Fisher wiped his mouth and shifted over a seat so that he was next to the man. He identified himself. “Mind if I sit down?” he asked.

Foreman accepted, gesturing with his hand. He applied a spoon to the hardened top skin of the chocolate pudding before him, skillfully skimmed it off, and dropped the thickish membrane on a napkin. “Nasty stuff, that skin. Now, what can I do for you, detective?”

In as calm and friendly a tone as he could muster, Fisher asked, “Did I hear you say you left a knife at the home of 745 Webster Place?” The fact that the perpetrator dropped his knife during the robbery was not public knowledge.

Foreman carefully stared at Fisher’s badge. “I did. Why?”

“Never mind,” Fisher answered. “Were you also inside the house at 30 Formosa Way on,” he paused to check his notebook, “the 30th of January?”

Foreman took a spoonful of pudding. “I don’t remember the exact date, but yes, I believe that was the address and January sounds about right,” Foreman answered. “It was cold. I remember that. Why?”

“With a knife? The same knife you claimed to have left at the Webster Place home?”

“Yes, of course.” Again, Foreman asked, “Why?”

That clinched it.

“I’m placing you under arrest,” Fisher said.

“What? For what?” asked the incredulous Foreman. He put up no resistance while the detective applied handcuffs.

“Breaking and entering, robbery with a lethal weapon, for starters.” His eyes darted between Foreman and his own phone. Fisher punched a contact name. “Chief. Fisher. I’ve made an arrest in the home invader cases. Guy sitting next to me admits to being inside 745 Webster and 30 Formosa. Said he left a knife at the Webster Street address. You know, the butcher knife.” “Butcher knife?” Foreman shouted. “I’m a mohel.”

Savage Beads by Pearson O’Meara

Lee never planned to kill.  The murderous thoughts came to him like savage rosary beads strung together.

In his son’s bedroom, sitting on the edge of the twin bed reading his son’s suicide note, Lee’s hands hung heavy between his knees.  The words on the lined notebook paper detailed a truth that yanked Lee into an abyss he refused to descend alone.

Lee opened his fingers, and the note wafted side to side until it came to rest on top of an envelope.  His pulse drummed in his ears.  He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, but they were dry.  The knowing made it too hard for tears.

He picked up the envelope that had contained John Paul’s note and shook out a single black and white photo.  He held it up between his left thumb and forefinger and read the words printed in blue ink at the bottom.

“May 1963 John Paul’s First Communion”

Lee recognized the photo.  He had taken it after borrowing the Polaroid camera from a neighbor.  The neighbor explained the film cartridge was expensive, and Lee promised to only take one picture.  He remembered smiling as he sighted through the viewfinder, framing John Paul and St. Ann’s Catholic Church’s new priest, Father Henry.

John Paul had a little boy’s fresh haircut, and he looked awkward dressed in a man’s suit and crooked batwing bow tie.  His legs were long, and his pant legs barely reached the top of the new hard-soled shoes they’d bought specially for him at Greenwood Shoes on Jefferson Street in downtown Lafayette.

Father Henry’s left arm rested across John Paul’s shoulders, and the rosary that John Paul’s parrain had given him dangled from his clasped hands.  Lee felt sick and had to swallow hard when he remembered having to coax a feeble smile out of John Paul.  Father Henry was smiling the way a hunter smiles when holding up a fallen deer’s head.

The photograph had been on the refrigerator for several years, held there by two plastic letters with magnets on the backs.  It was a proud family moment captured on new film technology by the opening and closing of a mechanical shutter and a burst of chemicals.

Lee picked up the note, folded it neatly, and placed it and the photograph back into the envelope and into his breast pocket.

• • •

Lee descended their terraced yard with John Paul’s body cradled in his arms.  The St. Augustine grass crunched under his feet.  Still, all Lee could hear was the cicadas flexing their tymbals and the rhythmic swooshing of his heartbeat.  The Vermilion River was dark and flat, but when a light breeze blew, its surface danced with ripples, the tips painted white by the moon.

Lee waded knee-deep and let John Paul’s body slip into the swampy water.  He watched the current’s fingers grasp hold of his son and guide him downstream.

He climbed the bank, picked up a roped anchor, and placed it quietly in the bottom of the flat bottom metal boat.  He grabbed the single oar, pressed the toe of his boot against the stern, and gave the boat a hard shove.  He tossed the single oar in the river as far as he could.

Lee walked back to the house, took off his wet boots, socks, and pants, and stood in front of the refrigerator in his boxer shorts.  He scanned his family’s photos.  Later that day, the Sheriff’s office would mount a rescue.  John Paul’s body would be recovered, and his death would be mistaken for drowning.  Crushing grief and small-town accusations of poor parenting would follow.  Lee fingered the letters L-O-V-E that held the week’s grocery list.

Lee held John Paul’s first communion photo in its place on the refrigerator.  He placed the letter “J” on the left corner and the letter “P” on the right.  Each plastic letter clicked as its magnet met the refrigerator’s metal surface.

• • •

Lee waited until daylight and then entered the hush of St. Ann’s chapel.  He clutched John Paul’s note in one hand and his pistol in the other.  His ears roared.  An amber light glowed at the top of the confessional box.

Life in a Northern Town by Abra Deering

Life in a northern town, she thinks in the diner, wearing a black turtleneck, desert boots, her cigarette, burning. The coffee smell is intoxicating. The notebook and pen have an everlasting battery – it won’t lose its charge, ever.

But some things do lose their charge.

She taps the notebook. She’s been called a wise soul. Too smart for her own good.

She’s not quite twenty. She’s already seen New York and Los Angeles. She’s seen Minneapolis. In Minneapolis, the northern town, the snow is part of you. It goes into your DNA. It harkens back to earliest memories of sledding and snow forts and later memories of the smell of weed, seeing your breath exhaled on a winter night, rubbing mittens together, tire changes on the side of the road. The first snowfall is a pretty thing, delicate, the last snowfall is a tiresome loser that’s overstayed its welcome and left nothing but dirty, slushy, exhaust behind. A loser who’s done something bad.

She waits, keeping her eye on the St. Paul diner’s door. The booth is old, the leather seat is cracked, the table is worn. She holds a butter knife by the handle carving marks into the wood. The table is covered with worn scratches.

The waitress dribbles coffee into her cup, mostly splashing accurately. She drops in cream. Sips. It tastes like tar laced with milk. She keeps drinking coffee even though it’s four o’clock in the afternoon.

He’s late.

When she got up this morning, it was cold. The quilt didn’t stop her body from going rigid, every part of her protruding in the frozen air. The cold shower hadn’t helped, her barefeet on the hardwood floor, the heater in her old Mustang that didn’t kick on, and now the drafty diner – cold. She isn’t warm. She stopped her car at the railroad tracks and looked both ways, as her Irish father always told her to do. “Kay Riley lost her arm out on the railroad track,” her father said, “Jim O’Malley went out for butter and never came back.” The train rattled past her like an angry God, howling, shuddering along the northern town. Snow lines the gutters like forgotten dreams and she hopes for a fresh dusting before nightfall.

Through the windows, dusk settles like a whisper, dimming the lights, sending gunflint grays and soft pinks out across the horizon, beckoning her to hurry home before dark, to be safe inside. When the sky is all blue black and the diner inside lights are now bright and the grease smells switch from eggs and coffee to burgers and fries – he appears at the door.

He’s too skinny and has dumb, desperate eyes. He darts them around the room like she is a cop and he can escape the trap. Only, she’s no cop.

He slides in across from her all phony smiles and chit chat. His hand tapping and knee bouncing. “So, your Pat’s daughter? I knew your father when…”

She doesn’t smile, doesn’t take her eyes off him. He already broke the rule. He isn’t supposed to speak about her father.

“Whatchya writing?” He asks.

“Poems.”

He spits a laugh. “Your family is so Irish. Did your father tell you I’m an actor? I’m going to LA. So much smog there I didn’t even know there were mountains until one day after it rained and I saw them. LA is full of surprises.”

She keeps her stare level. “So is Minnesota.”

 “As soon as I can, I’m going back. I used to live not far from the Strip.”

She speaks then. “Sunset and La Cienega?”

His eyes look left and right. “I haven’t lived at that address for years.”

She smiles then. “You ever hear of Irish Alzheimer’s? You forget everything except the grudges.”

“Grudges?” he asks, no longer smiling.

She writes one word in the notebook and pushes it across the table. “A poem,” she says.

He reads the name, going pale, his eyes darting around. “Wait –” he whispers, “Wai –”

He bolts for the door but he doesn’t get far. Her father’s men are outside, waiting.

She knows that he won’t even make it across the railroad tracks.

No Wrong, Come Along by Jason M. Tucker

Southern California, 1972 – Somewhere Outside Los Angeles

Family taught me a few things.

Using memory and the full moon’s light, I eased the ’69 Chevelle down the overgrown dirt road, chaparral scraping the car like bony fingers. Swollen eyes made the drive difficult, but I eventually reached the scarred remains of the old ranch and parked. Once a famous filming location, it burned down a year ago. I could still see the ghost of what the place used to be, though.

Once upon a time, it was home. It was genuine love, laughter, and music. But no matter how much you might try to cling, life punches you forward.

Sometimes it brings good things. I glanced into the rearview mirror and in the deep dark could barely see Piper curled up in her little blue blanket. Stretching and yawning, she sat up and rubbed her eyes.

“Mama, where are we?” she asked.

“We took a little drive, baby.”

“Oh,” she said. “It’s dark here.”

“It didn’t use to be,” I said, thinking back to the campfires we used to have, Charlie singing to us, dancing, making love in the woods, the birth of my baby. “You lived here a long time ago when you were just a tiny thing.”

She looked out into the blackness. “Was this the happy place?”

“That’s right.” I’d told her stories about our earlier life before becoming a waitress and before shacking up with that bastard Jimmy Watts when I didn’t have a dime to my name.

Family taught me love is the key to everything. If you do something for love, it can’t be wrong.

Piper scrambled from the back and settled into the passenger seat. She looked like a little doll all wrapped up except for her round face and tufts of dark hair poking through. Big eyes, glistening in the moonlight, gazed up at me. Even in the low light, I could see swelling on her cheek where Jimmy had backhanded her. The kernel of anger flared inside me again.

“Mama, your face,” she said. She reached out a little hand. Her touch, the love she felt, was soothing despite the pain. “Why are you crying?”

“I’m happy,” I said. And that much was true.

“Really?”

“Yeah, sweetie,” I said. I cupped her chin in my hands and kissed her forehead. “I’m happy because everything’s going to be so much better.”

“Mama, your hands are all sticky,” she said, wrinkling her face. “Did you eat ice pops without me?”

“No, baby. You know you always get pops. They’re just sticky from some work I did.”

“At the diner?”

“No. Some work around the house. Cleaning up.”

She slumped into the passenger seat, casting her eyes to the floor. Her voice became small. “Were you and Jimmy fighting again?”

It tore at my insides she’d witnessed Jimmy putting his hands on me time after time. And pissed me off that the bastard thought he could lay a finger on her.

But that was done. Almost.

“It’s time you snuggle up and sleep. In the morning, we’ll go get some waffles.”

“Thanks, Mama,” she said, crawling into the back. “I love you.”

“Love you, too, baby.”

Family taught me you do what needs to be done.

I’d smoked half a pack of cigarettes while sitting on the Chevelle’s trunk before I heard people creeping through the scrub and whispering. One of them called to me. A woman.

“Skylark?”

My true name never sounded as sweet and musical.

“It’s me,” I said, choking on tears, so grateful they answered my call.

Three forms, two women and a man, slowly pushed out of the brush toward the car. They looked like angels tinted pale blue in the moonlight. Hoppy, Squid, and Bear. I hadn’t seen them in over a year, but they were as beautiful now as ever. Each carried a shovel.

“Bastard in the trunk?” Bear said in his deep, gravel-like voice.

“What’s left of him,” I said, smiling.

Family said, there’s no wrong when you do something for love. Even murder. Family also taught me lots of places to bury bodies on the ranch.

Puff, Puff, Pass by Angel Luis Colón

Rock bottom.

Addicts talked about that, but shoplifters?

My rock bottom—or so I thought—was walking out of an adult video store with a stolen rubber fist firmly up my ass.

I rarely kept what I stole. Usually threw the items away or gifted them. Wasn’t like I shoved everything up my ass on the regular. I’d crafted multiple means of smuggling items out of stores: coats with secret pockets, custom pants, a prosthetic hunchback, even special boots with hollow soles.

The rubber fist was a low point, though. I couldn’t sit for a few days without the use of my mother’s hemorrhoid pillow and she was getting suspicious.

“How’d that interview go?” my mother asked.

“Good.” I nodded to my closet where an unworn suit hung. “Need to go to the dry cleaner soon.”

“We owe three months in back rent.”

Great. Real money. Shoplifting rarely net a big score unless I stole something like jewelry or electronics. Reselling was easy, but I needed to go big if I had any hope of pulling in three months of rent.

Those options a bust, I went to my bucket list of things I wanted to steal. There was the copier at my old job, a mannequin, those little things they used to keep pizzas from slipping in the box, and animals.

Wait. People paid good money for exotic pets.

That pet needed to be small and capable of handling a few minutes of stress. Normal-sized mammals were easily obtained. Birds were loud. Nobody cared about lizards.

That left one answer: fish.

There were plenty of aquarium fish that sold for crazy money. Ten minutes on Google and I found one going for $10K called a boxfish, a cousin to the puffer fish. Five more minutes and I found a store that had them in stock.

How would I steal it? Bagging would be too time-consuming. Taking a whole tank was insane. It was summer, so long pants or a big coat were out.

Maybe pull a fire alarm as a distraction? Too risky.

My best strategy would be to scoop the fish from the tank and transfer it to a container in my car.

I practiced my catching skills with my mother’s goldfish. I cased my target for two days. The shop’s name was Reef Encounters. Just a single employee named Bob who did more daydreaming than work.

 I made a list of what I’d need: a bucket, saltwater, my mother’s car, and a butt plug—that rock-bottom moment may have awakened something.

#

A week, a shiny new butt plug, and three goldfish funerals later, I was ready.

I stood outside the store, took a deep breath, and walked in. It was approximately 72 steps to the tank. The walk to the tank went perfect; another customer had Bob’s attention. I plunged my hand into the open tank, grabbed my target, cupped the fish with both hands, and booked it to the front door.

Ten steps from the door I realized I had to pull it open. The next five steps were panicked, the next four inspired when I put the fish into my mouth to get out of the store unencumbered.

I ran to the parking lot, the weight of the fish on my tongue and my head spinning.  I dove into my car. My lips felt numb. I lunged towards the container I had ready and opened my mouth to let the fish out.

It was stuck.

The fish felt larger than before, inflated. My mind raced. Boxfish didn’t expand in duress.

Oh no.

I’d taken a puffer and the toxic fucker expanded in my mouth. That explained the lightheadedness and tightness in my throat. I reached into my mouth to get a grip on the fish and pulled. A hard yank and it came out, landing on my lap covered in spit and blood. It gasped for air.

I gasped back. There was knocking outside and Bob’s voice, but I didn’t have the energy to turn my head. Could only fight to breathe as my throat closed. As my limbs went heavy. As I remembered the plug up my ass once my muscles went slack.

Apprentice Test Prep by JM Taylor

They picked him up at a Fridays, after ditching the police cruiser and the body of the woman they’d pulled over. Marguerite vetoed the guy Kelly had picked out, in favor of Tim. Kelly agreed. Those were the rules.

They left in his Jeep. Marguerite sat in the back, Kelly up front, where the wind whipping at her dress distracted Tim plenty. He parked crookedly in the lot of a brick apartment building.

Upstairs, they entered Tim’s one-bedroom man cave. He liked his guns, displaying them on peg boards. The pistols were ranged butt out, ready for action. Rifles stood in rows like soldiers. Trays held magazines in easy reach, next to a tactical body vest.

“No safe?” Kelly asked.

“Nobody could breach my defenses,” he sneered. “I’m always locked and loaded.”

Kelly reached for a nickel-plated revolver that gleamed like a mirror.

“Don’t touch, honey,” Marguerite said. “That ain’t yours.”

“It’s fine,” Tim said. “Lemme show…” But they ushered him into the bedroom.

“Wait’ll I tell the guys,” he said. Marguerite undid his shirt, Kelly his pants. He fell onto the bed. Given the taped up centerfolds, clearly nothing like this had ever happened to him before. Marguerite crawled behind him, kissing his neck, sliding her hand down his chest.

Kelly unslung her backpack and took out the Leatherman. Before he could react, Marguerite had her elbow over his mouth. Kelly used the three-inch blade to carve through his belly and into his heart. She stepped back from the spray, licked some gore from her finger, and eyed the stain glistening on her hem.

“Ok, I’ll admit that was fun,” she said. “But the other guy was really cute.”

“The other guy had buddies who’d remember you. Friend Tim was hovering on the edge of another group, trying to look popular, but he was entirely alone. Wash that dress.”

Kelly stuffed the dress in Tim’s washer-dryer unit, hidden in a closet. Marguerite had claimed the shower, so Kelly wandered the living room, fondling the guns. She looked like one of Tim’s fantasies, a naked girl brandishing hardware, right there in his living room. But his sightless eyes had missed their chance.

It was nearly one in the morning by the time Kelly got her own shower and put on the cleaned and dried dress. “Let’s go,” Marguerite said. “I wiped everything down, and we don’t take trophies, right?”

“Right.”

No one noticed Tim’s Jeep pulling away from its spot. When gas ran low outside Lexington, Kentucky, they siphoned a tank in a used car lot and switched drivers.

Back on the highway, Marguerite asked, “What’d you learn this trip?”

“Not now,” Kelly huffed.

“Yes, now. Tell me three things.”

“Fine. No trophies. No greasy apps before a kill. Find a target with a washer-dryer. Satisfied?”

“You know, you could be a little more appreciative. If it weren’t for me, you’d still be in that diner, writing useless revenge fantasies.” Kelly rolled her eyes.

It was dawn when they entered a quiet Ohio suburb. “Let me off here,” Marguerite said, pointing to a ranch with marigolds lining the front walk. “Now, what about the car?”

Primly, Kelly answered, “Leave it downtown, but don’t get caught on a security camera. Use cash to take a bus home.” Before Marguerite could ask the next question, Kelly plowed on, “Then dispose of the dress, and my pack, and everything in it, including and especially the multi-tool that I shouldn’t have taken from the cop car in the first place.”

“Very good. You’re almost ready solo. In two weeks, we’ll visit Mount Rushmore. Now I have to clean up after the boys. My husband probably just left my casserole out so they could eat straight from the dish.”

Marguerite swiveled in her seat, but not before Kelly had flicked the Leatherman open and pulled the blade across her throat, careful to aim the spray of blood towards the marigolds. She held on to Marguerite’s Coach clutch as the body crashed to the street. She put it in her pack, next to Tim’s revolver. It would go well with her dress.

“Almost?” Kelly said. “Sure about that?”

The Patron Saint of Sleeping Dogs by Trevor Duplessis

He pushed himself off his knees and sat looking over the empty nave from the altar steps. Blisters formed on his palms during prayer, and the stone stairs sapped the warmth from his bare soles. He’d left his boots back in the porch with the shovel and the rifle. Wind slipped through the open front doors, rustling the red-tipped pages of the open bible on the lectern behind him while a lone silhouette weaved and flickered on the pew shoulders between the undulating tree shadows.

That boy, he could stare that painted wooden Jesus right down from his cross. He came to church with his mother his entire life. He resembled beautiful Louiselle in so many ways, and he’d stand and sing with her while the young girls stole glances and giggled. How many little elbow nudges had all the embarrassed mothers given to remind their whispering daughters to keep their thoughts on the Lord? But the day the boy noticed how Father Brennan wept at his mother’s funeral when the choir sang Abide with Me and the lowered Louiselle into the ground—it all changed. From that day forward, he had eyes for no one but the priest.

He only heard the boy’s voice from the shadows of the confessional after that. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” the boy would say, and then proceed to recount his sins. In the early years, they were typical of a boy his age. A cuss word. A stolen candy. An impure thought, perhaps. Gradually, barn fires got set. Car windows smashed. A family dog poisoned. In time, the boy began to confess things that, days later, the priest would hear echoes of in the papers and over the radio. Bad sins, like the one that put young Annamay Laughton out in the churchyard once the search party found her.

When the boy came in tonight, the church sat empty. “I am weak, Father, and I can’t stop myself. Why does the Devil pull me like this? Because I was born in sin? I think it will be a red-haired girl this time. I’m going to hell. Pray for me!” When they finished, the boy said, “You won’t tell anyone, will you, Father?”

“You know I can’t,” said the priest.

He sat until the boy had left before he grabbed some things and walked out to the truck.

Turning off his headlights at the edge of town, the priest let the Plymouth run ahead for a stretch before he followed it up the road to the abandoned Baker place. There he rolled to a stop after locating the taillights on the shoulder. The girl looked through the back window at him into the truck’s headlights, desperate and pale. The priest pulled the black shirt he’d plucked from the lost and found down over his face and approached the Plymouth with his Marlin 39A in hand. She burst out of the car, screaming and sobbed into his chest until he whispered, “Go on now, girl. And sin no more.” 

The rifle barrel motioned for the boy to leave the car, and they walked together through the lodgepole pines. The boy didn’t struggle, didn’t even look behind him. He offered one last confession, “I know it’s you, Father,” before the priest put him down and committed his body to unconsecrated earth. The priest would never allow the wicked boy to rest anywhere near the grave of the beautiful Louiselle. Let her rest peacefully with their secret.

The hymn of a feral dog pack drifted from the graveyard, interrupting the thought of how the boy’s voice sounded so much like his in the end. The song grew louder, and he let his mind picture them skirting through the hedges and tombstones and tearing up the grass. Or had he spoken at all? Father Brennan closed his eyes and waited, doubtful anyone else in town could hear the howls.